PRIEST RIVER — Those born after 1960 probably never knew Priest River had a town team which played in an Amateur Athletic Union senior league in the 1950s. Nor would they know the team had won seven consecutive championships and was rated as one of the top ten teams in the Inland Empire. In 1947 they played on a tour of Alaska. In 1957 they played in a Canadian Invitational Tournament where among their opponents were former players from Brigham Young University.
There was a town team in the 1930s, but not well organized. That team had to drive up Main Street to find a fifth player to make a trip. There was no team during the war years, but in 1947 high school coach Irv Morgan put together a team to play a barnstorming tour in Alaska. Jim Krizenesky, Don Bride, Jim Low, Bill Kelly, Norman Marinate and Mickey Brown made up the team. But it was a one-time thing, little publicity, few knew about it.
In 1950 Quentin Larson put together a team, but his job forced him to move. Kerns followed, then I was asked to manage and be the coach. One of the teams I scheduled to play in 1951 was an Air Force team from Yaak, Mont. Following the game, I met with their coach, who told me we should form a league. I thought it was a good idea, so I called the coaches of Newport, Ione, Deer Park and Rathdrum and all agreed, if I would set it up.
I asked each one to send me a copy of their high school schedule so I could work their games without a conflict. Each team had to supply their own referees. If they charged admission, they could keep all the money. I was surprised each team accepted their schedule without question. My next move was to set up a pre-season merry-go-round based on a mini tournament, one-quarter games. This was to let all players get acquainted and play with sportsmanship.
I made arrangements with the Spokesman-Review sports section to post weekly standings of our league, now called “Interstate Town Team Conference.” The home team was to call me with the results of their games and I, in return, would call in the scores to the Review. It worked well.
Then I talked with P. K. Woods, owner of the Priest River Times to carry our games in the paper. Paul (P.K.) agreed, but said I would have to do the write-up and get it to him no later than Tuesday.
None of this would have been possible without the support of the various schools involved--in our case, Mike Lamanna, then superintendent of Priest River High School. Mike had coached several of the current town team players and was a believer in graduates keeping active. Also, there wasn’t a heavy demand for use of the gym. That would come later.
The players on that first Priest River team in league play were: Jim Krizenesky, Les and Floyd Wylie, Jack Revier, Lyle Platt, Norman Moriniti, Frank Leader, Gene and Jim Low. In 1952, Ken Bretthauer, Everett Campbell, and Jack Dieterich joined.
In order to raise money for equipment and travel, we sold season tickets. The VFW agreed to sponsor the team and bought new uniforms. We called ourselves “The Vets.”
Attendance was slow the first few weeks, but improved greatly near the end of the season as the team won the conference and the tournament. They ended their first year with a 21-7 record.
When the 1953-54 season opened, Deer Park dropped out, but Cusick, Riverside, and Spirit Lake came in. We added new players: Frank Wylie, up from last year’s high school team, Al Ricci, and Wayne Phillips, who later became a teacher and coach of the high school team.
When I went to the University of Idaho in the late 1940s, I was a student manager for the Vandals’ basketball team. The coach was Steve Belko, who later coached at the University of Oregon, then became commissioner of the Big Sky Conference. He told me you have to play the teams in your league, but schedule outside teams that are better. You may lose, but you’ll have a better chance of winning your conference.
I followed that advice. Spokane had many teams in different leagues. “A” League was made of former college players, drawing from Gonzaga, Whitworth, University of Idaho, Washington State and Eastern Washington. “B” League was mostly former high school players, and “C” League was for anyone who just liked the game. I looked for teams to play in the “A” League.
We won the conference and the tournament again and qualified to play in the Inland Empire Tournament held at Gonzaga. Our opponent was Steptoe. That didn’t sound too bad until we learned they were made up of Idaho and Washington State University players of that year. College players could play in the AAU once their season was over. We had a college player, too. Jack Dieterich had played for Northwest Missouri State, not exactly a power school.
Our tougher non-league games were our advantage and we won 43-42 with the sharp shooting of Les Wylie and Jim Krizenesky from the outside and Jack Dieterich from inside. We didn’t do so well in the second round. We lost to Medical Lake, which went on to win the Tournament. We ended the season with a 24-5 record.
We gained some height for the 1954-55 season. Jim Low returned after time with the Marines and Lou Brillon from last year’s high school team joined his brother LeRoy on the Vets team.
Olympia Beer and Budweiser distributors were competitors trying to gain our favors, I think Olympia started it by donating a cast of beer after each home game. Budweiser offered another. Following a game we would meet at the Vets Club above the corner meat market and barbershop, or at Popeye’s next to the barbershop (now gone). Or at Phil’s Club across the street next to the drug store (also gone). You might call it “Happy Hour,” but it was relaxing.
After a home game we invited our opponents, whether we won or lost, to join us. It was good public relations and any hard feelings were soon forgotten. I scheduled a game with Pine City, the top team in the Palouse country. They were so impressed with this after-game treatment, they invited us to a steak dinner. I think we got the best of that trade.
Priest River ended the season with a 24-9 record and third straight conference and tournament titles.
We added more height for the 1955-56 season — 6-foot 3-inch Chuck Staudinger from Oregon, 6-4 Earl Moore, Mike Hawley, and Darryl Jacobson from PRHS, and former EWU college player Vern Coulter, a high-scoring guard. It gave us another championship, with a 22-8 record.
During the year, we played a traveling professional team called the Harlem Clowns, an offshoot of the Harlem Globetrotters. No one expected us to win and we didn’t. It was a crowd pleaser. Their comic routine brought laughter to a packed house.
Later in the season, we were approached by another barnstorming team, the “All-American Redheads,” a women’s team. They advertised themselves as playing 200 games a year all over the world, and seldom lost, despite their comical routine. To help them, I asked their coach when we hold slack off and let the girls run through us. He said, “Play your best, the girls will take care of that.”
It was his mistake, They never had a lead big enough to give a show, and in the end they lost. Their coach told us later he was surprised to see a small town with that good of a team.
In the 1956-57 season we added 6-foot 7-inch Rich Moore to our team, along with 6-6 Bob Pelleberg, Don Kramer, and Jim Martin. We could easily put five men on the floor, all over six feet. Then the next year we added tall Larry Foote. We didn’t want to cut any player, but when twenty turned out, some realized they wouldn’t get much playing time.
We ended up with fifteen, who were divided into three teams. On tough games we started A team with B squad filling in. If a good lead was maintained, C team played. There were weak teams in our league, games in which a team never got in. C squad kept the score close. We never ran the score up on a weaker team.
Before the season started we had been invited to play in the Canadian Invitational Tournament in Lethbridge, Alberta, over the Christmas holiday. We felt honored, as only a few American teams were invited. Our record over the past few years caught their attention. AAU commissioners and sports writers had us rated in the top ten teams of the Inland Empire, northern Idaho and eastern Washington.
We took three cars and when we cross the line, Canadian border guards wished us good luck. We stopped at Cranbrook and found ourselves in the middle of a celebration. The Canadians were celebrating two holidays, and when they learned where we were going, we were treated as celebrities. As we came within radio range of Lethbridge, we heard our first game was with Brigham Young University. Someone in the back seat said, “Let’s turn around and go home.”
Lethbridge had about 35,000 population and the tournament showed posters and banners everywhere. It was well advertised. The arena was large and we couldn’t see an extra seat. I think we had state fright the first half of the BYU game, then we got into the rhythm and matched them evenly in the second half but couldn’t catch up. We lost 76-50.
Our second game was with Anaconda, Mont., made up mostly of former Montana State University players. We won in a tight, well-played game, 68-62. We lost Jim Krizenesky to a bad cold, then went up against Great Falls, minus three more sick players. We lost 89-58. Vern Coulter was voted on the All-Tournament team and was a candidate for the tournament MVP award.
Tom Holmes, BYU center, set a scoring record of 39 points against a Canadian team, but was held to 12 points by Priest River’s Earl Moore. We came home tired and readied ourselves for the rest of the season.
Medical Lake, with former players from Gonzaga and Whitworth, had won last year’s Inland Empire Tournament and were rated number one in this year’s standings. It may have been too early to play them so close to our Canadian trip, but we played at the Gonzaga University gym. Jim Krizeneksy was over his flu and sparked the vets to a 33-31 half-time lead. The game changed leads several times, and with ten seconds left, Earl Moore tied the score with a hook shot. We lost in the overtime 83-78.
Sometime later Medical Lake came to Priest River. The gym was packed. It appeared to be standing room only. Gonzaga’s former point guard Billy Gray started the scoring with a mid-court long shot. Krizenesky dribbled across the mid line and matched Gray. The two exchanged shots again and the roar from the crowd was deafening. This time there was no overtime. The vets won 99-78. It was arguably the best game we ever played, and we went on to win our sixth straight conference titles with a season record of 27 wins, 10 losses. We received national recognition when the VFW magazine carried our story.
When the 1958-59 season got underway, we were minus two key players. After ten years on the team, Jim Krizenesky decided it was time to retire, as did Jim Low. But the strength of the team carried them on to another successful year, winning their seventh consecutive title.
Then came the end. There was no conference the next year. Times change. Other priorities take place. Perhaps it was a time that cannot be repeated. The team had excellent support from the people, Superintendent Mike Lamanna, and high school coach Wayne Phillips, a former Vets player. There was more demand for use of the gym, a problem all conference teams faced.
People complained, other programs wanted use of the facilities. The only way a town team could be revived would be with the building of a sports center with several courts. Maybe someday. For now the Priest River town team of the 1950s is only a fading memory for those who lived it.